What do you do when the sky falls in? Hy Knowshole's great-great-great-grandma, Tynee Knowshole, was one of the founders of Etherley, the domed city that never gets too weatherly. When locals demand wind, hot sun and air-conditioning, the delicate balance is toppled and the protective dome starts to cave. Hy decides to follow their great-great-great-grandma's footsteps to find out how to restore clean air.
Today is day one. Well, not the proper Day One. Day One is, of course, the day we celebrate every year to make sure we never forget how we all came to be in the city of Etherley. And how can I forget? It was my great-great-great grandma who brought us here. That means that every year, on the Day One anniversary, I’m the one who has to carry the wreath down to the main square. And is it a wreath of flowers? No. It’s a wreath of face masks and inhalers and incense sticks and all the weird things my ancestors used to help them live with their dirty air. I have to drape it over the statue of my great-great-great-grandma’s rubber boot. Then I have to read the words on the plaque:
Remembering our brave founder, Tynee Knowshole.
May we always follow in her footsteps.
You see, Diary, I am Hy Knowshole, the last in a long line of Knowsholes. Our house is full of pictures of my glorious ancestors. When I was smaller, I used to look at the paintings and wonder which one I’d want to be. Was it Tynee, who’d noticed the air getting soupy and polluted and trekked through continents to find a new place to live? Was it her son, Blokt Knowshole, the architect? He designed the Etherley dome that keeps our clean air inside. Or what about Twee Stead-Knowshole, my great-great-aunty and engineer, who perfected the machinery that keeps our city a perfect temperature all year round? With so many famous ancestors to choose from, it’s hard to pick a Knowshole.
But, it’s also why I know it’s time for me to act. When great-great-great-grandma Tynee saw that the world was going wrong, she pulled on her boots and started walking. That’s exactly what I’m doing now.
So, Diary, just to remind you how it all started…
Well, funnily enough, it all started with the Day One celebrations four years ago. The Etherley Elders Gymnastic Club decided to use the weather as the theme for their display. This still feels weird to me. I mean, our city motto is actually, Etherley, the city that’s never too weatherly. So why did they put on a display dressed like snowflakes and raindrops? My friend, Canni’s, uncle was the west wind. His turn on the trapeze really got the crowd clapping. And then talking. Because suddenly everyone was remembering weather, real weather. Of course, they weren’t really remembering it, because nearly everyone here has been born under the dome. But some of them said that their grandparents had been on the out and described it to them. The rain cooling their cheeks. The wind ruffling their hair. The sun scorching their noses. (They obviously completely forgot to mention that they had to carry factor 3000 sunscreen and an oxygen backpack because the air outside was so poisonous.) But now, everyone was going on about the good old days.
Our new mayor was happy to help. His team set to work on great-great-granddad Blokt’s dome-skin. It was just a small patch over the eastern sky-garden at first, peeling off layer after layer until there was barely anything between the hot sun and us. And you know how it works, don’t you? EVERYONE raced up to the eastern sky-garden with their picnic baskets and deckchairs and King Attenborough t-shirts until you couldn’t see a blade of grass. So, they had to do the same over the western sky-garden. Just to deal with the over-crowding, the mayor said. Soon, some of the really rich folk were buying permits to have their own sunshine over their gardens. The mayor opened up the seed vaults and all of a sudden, we had new flowers and trees and fruit that no one’s tasted before because Etherley wasn’t hot enough to grow them.
Diary, I will admit it. But only to you. I bit into a ripe mango and I was very happy.
But soon, it started getting too hot. When my great-great-Aunty Twee designed the atmosphere machinery, she didn’t plan for Etherley turning weatherley. So folks started talking about refreshing breezes and that’s when they built the factories making wind machines and air-conditioning units and electric fans. Then they had to build new power stations to keep those factories running.
Our sky started to sag. The scientists said that the problem was that all the new machinery and the thinner dome skin had upset Etherley’s balance. We should give up the sun and the wind machines and the mangos. The Etherlely folk didn’t like that, so the mayor’s trying to find a way to hold up the sky instead.
Patching things up over and over again doesn’t work. My great-great-great-grandma knew that for sure.
So that’s it. My boots are on. My air-sack is full and I’m going to set off to find out what we should do.
I can honestly say that the out is not a nice place. It’s hot, dark and smelly. It’s like being trapped in my brother’s armpit. The roads are mostly empty. I saw the occasional trader heading towards Etherley. We now grow so much fruit we can sell it to other places. I was lucky, though. An air-conditioning engineer had just been out on a call and was heading back to his home. His bike trailer was empty and he was happy to give me a lift to Palloncini, the next town along.
You can see Palloncini long before you reach it. I suppose it’s the same with Etherley. But while we must look like we’re inside one enormous balloon, all the houses here are balloons. (Though officially, they’re called bubble-houses.) There are thousands of them, all different colours, hovering at different levels, all joined together by moving walkways that go side to side and up and down. It looks amazing! (Even if they don’t grow their own mangoes.)
The engineer dropped me off by the tourist information bureau. He said that the best way to get a feel for Palloncini was with a proper guided tour.
The tour minibus was – okay, Diary, sigh if you want to – shaped like a giant mango. Or maybe a papaya. It had a frame like a barrel, narrowing down at the front and the back, the whole thing covered in a sunproof fabric. There were only four of us taking the tour, so we all had a window seat.
The factories and offices were all on the bottom levels of Palloncini. I could see smoke plumes drifting between hundreds of chimneys and zip cars shooting up and down (and along and round) the airways. We hovered over an enormous zip-carpark. I pressed ‘play’ on my audio guide.
‘Palloncini is trying to reduce parking space to encourage people to use public transport. We recently granted a permit to Ruebber Cabs to ease congestion.’
Just then a Ruebber Cab swooped in front of us. It’s advertising banner lit up.
YOUR MOULD IS OUR GOLD. Come to Duggie’s Deep Clean - we wage war on your spores.
Our driver hooted his horn. The cab hovered then shot up a vertical airway.
Not all the buildings on the lower levels were work buildings. There were some bubble-houses. Their outsides were stained the colour of smoke and even though there were windows, I didn’t see any open. I suppose the air was too smoky. According to my audio guide, Palloncini had started as a few factories and bubble-houses. Gradually, as the town grew bigger, more levels were added. As the tour bus rose through the levels, the bubble-houses were further apart and definitely bigger. Some had balconies and baskets full of bright flowers. Windows were flung open wide. I touched a lever by the tour bus window and it slid down. I breathed in. The air was clean and light.
‘All change! All change!’
The tour bus stopped near a sky park. Its tall, shady trees and beds of bright flowers reminded me so much of Etherley that I felt homesick. But unlike Etherley’s sky-parks, this one was almost empty. Perhaps it was because the sun was so hot. I sat beneath a wide-spreading palm, thinking about where to go next. Jewel-green parrots screeched at each other from across the park. And, guess what? I even saw a hummingbird. At first, I thought it was a giant hornet and was about to get up and run. Then I saw the long, thin beak and shimmering wings. I wanted to stay there watching it for hours, but I still had work to do. I was nowhere nearer to finding out how to save Etherley.
As I stood up, I noticed a queue by the far gate. It was weird because everyone was dressed like me, in old, baggy clothes with an air-sack on their backs and a mask round their necks waiting to be yanked up in place.
So what else could I do? I joined the queue.
The queue moved pretty quickly. We were being hurried into minibuses. Each was emblazoned with a familiar jingle.
YOUR MOULD IS OUR GOLD! Come to Duggie’s Deep Clean – we wage war on your spores.
Dear Diary, I was going cleaning! I know that mould can be dangerous. When great-great-granddad Blokt designed our dome, he added filters covered in webbing to make sure that the inside of the dome-sky didn’t get damp and mouldy. Now, I was going to discover Pallincino’s secret dirt.
The driver’s voice came over the tannoy.
‘Strap yourselves in because we are going UP!’
And up we went.
I have been chewed up and spat out. I feel like I’ve been swallowed by a dragon that didn’t like my flavour. Though, thankfully, a dragon that’s got no teeth.
I’m writing these words sitting in a Watcher’s basket floating high above the planet. If I peek through the telescope, I can just about see the glow from the next Watcher along.
There’s a chain of Watchers keeping an eye on our planet. Who knew? I didn’t!
How did I get here? Well…
When the driver told us to strap ourselves in because we were going up, she really meant it. We went up and UP and UP. The sky turned deep blue and we were told to put on our masks as the air thinned out. My ears felt like they’d been pumped full of water. No one else seemed to mind so I just kept myself to myself. We docked by a floating warehouse. It’s the busiest place I’ve ever been, even busier than Wetherley’s eastern-sky garden on the last Day One celebration. Everyone was dressed in overalls, mask and air-sack plus buckets and brushes. Some of them looked like weird octopus cleaning creatures with brooms and mops and hooks and scrapers attached to a belt on their backs.
A voice bellowed in my ear. ‘Section 3.7! Hurry up!’ I was jostled onto another Duggie’s minibus. This time there were no seats. We held on to the straps dangling from the roof and we were off again.
The cleaner standing next to me nudged me.
‘Your first time?’
I nodded. ‘How can you tell?’
‘You didn’t bring your broom!’
I patted my back, even though I knew it was broomless. ‘Well, I…’
‘Don’t worry! You can borrow one of mine.’ They unclipped a broom from their back, while still holding on to the strap.
Diary, they didn’t fall over! It was impressive! They handed the broom to me.
‘Take care of it. It’s my favourite. And stay close to me. I’ll show you the ropes.’
The ropes dangled from the side of an enormous dirigible. When I say enormous, I mean it was so big that you couldn’t see all of it once. The lights from hundreds of Duggie minibuses rippled over its silver surface so it looked like it was alive. As we hovered closer, I saw that the dirigible was held inside a bamboo frame like scaffolding that hugged the shape of the balloon. The ropes were hooked to rings on the scaffolding poles. Some of the cleaners had attached these ropes to their belts and were balanced on the edge of the frame polishing portholes and stitching torn seams.
My eyes went double wide just looking at it. I also gasped, which is a very bad idea when you’re breathing from an air valve. My broom-lending friend was still laughing by the time I finished coughing.
‘That happens to everyone the first time they see it. Mad, isn’t it?’
‘Who does it belong to?’
‘No one really knows. It’s one of the old cruise ships. But it’s up for sale. That’s why they want it looking its best, inside and out. It’s a bit old and cumbersome now, but in its day…’ My new friend shook their head. ‘It was state of the art. The best air purifying system on the planet. Even better than the Etherley dome that everyone goes on about. Though I’ve heard that even that one can’t cope these days.’
I didn’t say anything. Broom-lender was right. But still, Etherley is my city. Well, my great-great-great-grandma’s city, actually. I have to stay loyal. I soon forgot about that though, when I realised that the minibus doesn’t actually stop. It just goes very slowly and you have to step out onto the scaffolding. It shouldn’t be too difficult. The minibus is travelling slower than I can walk. I watched the door slide open and one by one, everyone stepped out.
‘This is us,’ Broom-lender said. ‘Right by the tail. Be careful, though. It can get a bit windy.’
I closed my eyes. Okay, that’s a stupid thing to do when you’re stepping off a moving minibus onto a narrow frame. But I kept my arms stretched out, made a grab for a pole and, yea! My foot landed on solid wood! I opened my eyes again.
Diary, when I was a little kid, I’d heard about the giant space cruisers that used to chug round the atmosphere showing rich people the stars without the blanket of smog that sits over our planet. I never thought I would see a cruiser this close. I mean really close. Every little scratch and oil stain and rain-dust patch, streaked across its massive hulk waiting to be cleaned off. Columns of air filters whirled between the rows of portholes with even bigger slats striping the tail end. Perhaps that’s where the engine room was – though a ship this size must have more than one engine room – and it needed to be cooler. If the Etherley folk wanted to feel a breeze, this was their place! Air was being sucked into the ducts on the tail end and wafted out through the filters.
My broom-lending friend clipped themselves to a rope, waved to me and started work scrubbing a porthole. And that’s when I remembered. I wasn’t actually wearing a belt. I couldn’t clip a safety rope to me. It was just me, the scaffolding and a great big void beyond my back.
My legs wobbled. So did my arms. And my hands.
And, yes, Diary, I dropped the broom. It hovered in the air and I reached out to grab it.
The broom fell.
So did I.
I pitched forward, my knuckles glancing off the scaffolding as I tried to grab hold. I could see the broom out of the corner of my eye. It dropped, then it was caught in the airstream and tugged towards the tail-end filters.
And where the broom went – so did I.
I’ve since learned from the Watcher that the air rush is deliberate. It’s a safety net for anyone that slips off the scaffolding. We fall into this fast-flowing river of air that sweeps us through the filters into the ship. My first glimpse of the filters were great silver flaps that joined and parted as if they were clapping my stupidity. Then they opened wide and I was sucked into the cruiser.
Diary, I have to tell you that IT HURT! Duggie’s obviously want to put you off falling into the cruiser! The air stream gives you a good old shake around and the giant filters are terrifying. It looks like they’re going to clamp shut around your head! I shot between them with so much force it felt like my stomach hit my spine. And, okay, I did want to be sick but that’s a very bad idea when you’re being whirled around in the air.
The place I’d been sucked into wasn’t an engine room. It was completely empty – that is, apart from the other mini-whirlwinds like me. Bigger ones had other cleaners in the middle of them, others were smaller - spinning brooms and mops and even a tiny, spinning ball with a tangle of goggles at the centre. The walls of the room were white and sparkling. Though I’m not sure if ‘room’ is the right word. It was more like a cavern – a bright, pristine, cavern full of whirlwinds all being borne to the same place. The exit.
Or should I say, ALIEN MATTER DISPOSAL UNITS. The words were written in glowing, green lights above a wall of portholes. These weren’t the windows for gazing out onto shooting stars and the smudge of distant galaxies. These were like the recycling chutes back in Etherley. In Etherley, you tapped a pedal and the lid clicked open. These portholes were covered too. Every time a whirlwind blew towards it, the cover flipped wide and snapped shut when the ALIEN MATTER was sucked through.
I was ALIEN MATTER. I was rubbish. I was being disposed.
I spun and whirled and swivelled towards the disposal unit. Even if I could control my hands, there was nothing for me to grab on to. I tried to twist my body to rebalance and tilt myself in a different direction. A ball of polishing cloths bounced off my head. Then something banged my knee. It was a broom. Was it the broom? I stretched out my hand. My fingertips brushed the wooden handle then…
Click! The porthole cover opened and I was sucked through.
I popped out into nothing. I was spinning gently. One second, the glistening cruiser was next to me, then above me, then below. I knew that I should panic. I knew that I could go wafting away into open space. But I took a deep breath from my air supply and closed my eyes.
When I woke up I was in the Watcher’s basket. She told me how I got here. There’s a giant net stowed on the bottom of her basket. It scoops up the debris being shot out of the cruiser.
‘To return or recycle,’ she said. ‘And you, of course, are to return before I move away from the signal.’
She summoned a Ruebber Deep cab to take me back to the Duggie warehouse. As she waited, she told me about the Watchers.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘We watch, of course.’
How can I describe it, Diary?
Watchers circle the planet checking our air and atmosphere. They plot any changes to see where the air is clear and when it’s heavy and polluted. She showed me her dashboard and all the equipment Watchers used to measure the different gases and particles in the air. They can see what’s happening the world below and the different ways it affects the air, in both good and bad ways.
A blue light flashed on her dashboard.
‘Your Ruebber’s nearly here,’ the Watcher said.
So this was it, the end of my journey. From Duggie’s warehouse, I’d head back to Palloncini and then home, to Etherley. Had I learned anything useful at all?
‘What makes a difference?’ I asked.
Down below us, the lights glinted off the hulk of the cruiser and beyond that the pale clouds streaked across our darkening world.
‘Think about it, Hy,’ she said. ‘You already know.’